Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
1. That the Law could not give life.
2. That it was not designed to give life.
3. That its real aim was to convince of sin, and so to shut men up to the faith that would afterwards be revealed (Galatians 3:23).
Three topics in these verses -
I. THE ERECTION OF THE STONES. (Vers. 2, 8.) Stones were to be set up, coated with plaster (a custom of Egypt), on which were to be written, "very plainly," "all the words of this Law" (ver. 8) - either the Law in Deuteronomy, or the Pentateuchal laws generally. The stones were:
1. Significant reminders of the tenure on which the land was held.
2. Witnesses against the people in case of disobedience.
3. A testimony to the plainness with which the Law had been made known to them. The last point reminds us of our own privilege in possessing a clear and full revelation of the will of God in the Bible. Copies of the Bible are like these stones, witnesses against us if we disobey the gospel. "Light has come into the world" (John 3:19). We are not left to the natural conscience, sufficient though that be to convict men of sin (Romans 2:14, 15). We are servants who know our Lord's will (Luke 12:47). We have the light both of Law and gospel. Supremely great are our privileges, and equally great are our responsibilities.
II. THE STONES ERECTED ON EBAL. (Ver. 4.) But why on Ebal? Why on the mount of cursing? Had there been a Law which could have given life, "verily," Paul says, "righteousness should have been by the Law" (Galatians 3:21). In that case, the appropriate place for the erection of the stones would have been Gerizim - the mount of blessing. But the Law could not give life. In itself considered, as requiring perfect obedience, it could only condemn. Its principal function - its economic scope and purpose - was not to bless, but to give "knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:19, 20; Romans 7:9-14; Galatians 3.). Hence the appropriate place for the stones being planted was on the mount of cursing.
III. THE ACCOMPANYING SACRIFICES. (Vers. 5-7.)
1. As the Law testified to sin, so the sacrifices testified to grace - to the provision in mercy which lay within the covenant for the removal of guilt. Burnt offerings and peace offerings, as well as the sin offerings, included the idea of propitiation. This was shown at the first forming of the covenant by the action of sprinkling the blood (Exodus 22:6-8; cf. Hebrews 9:19-28). Without sacrifice, without the means of removing, or at least covering guilt, Israel's position under the Law would have been a mockery.
2. The altar of unhewn stones testifies to the subordinate place which art ought to have in the worship of God. There was a special suitableness in the altar of propitiation being built of undesecrated materials. Himself sinful, man's art would have polluted it. Only when propitiation had been made was art permitted to resume its function of ministering to the beauty of Divine service. But art, in religion, needs to be carefully guarded. It is false art when it drowns other thoughts in admiration of the finish, injuring worship by that which draws away the mind from worship.
3. The burnt offerings and peace offerings testified - the one to the entire consecration of heart and life which is the condition of acceptable service; the other, to the peace and fellowship with God which, on the ground of sacrifice, are attained through consecration and obedience. - J.O.
I. AN OBEDIENT SPIRIT DELIGHTS TO EXALT AND PERPETUATE GOD'S LAW. Moses, instructed by God, was a wise observer of human nature; hence he engages the cooperation of the people in proclaiming the Law in the first flush of conquest. The first stones they touched with their feet on the other side Jordan were to be consecrated to the service of God's Law. Deficient in tools, they were not expected to grave them in stone, but to write them on plaster. This could be expeditiously done, and might serve to remind them how easily were the Divine commands effaced from human hearts. As soon as God had begun to fulfill his part of the covenant, man must fulfill his. The people were to write "all" the precepts; for not one of them, however minute, was needless. What was sufficiently important for God to reveal, we may be sure was important enough for man to preserve. These stones, when inscribed with Divine legislation, were to be set up on a mount central in the land, to indicate the universal honor to which they were entitled. And probably Ebal was selected that the people might be awed by the curses which sprang from disobedience. To magnify the Law of the King is the loyal subject's delight. "Oh, how I love thy Law!"
II. AN OBEDIENT SPIRIT IS QUALIFIED TO ENTER UPON A LARGER INHERITANCE. (Ver. 3.) The language is significant. Having passed over Jordan, they were to select and prepare these monumental stones, to the end "thou mayest go in unto the land." Various measures of success were possible. They might destroy the Canaanites, and yet find little advantage or comfort from the inheritance. God could give with one hand and blast with the other. Though in the land, it might not yet open out its resources to them as a "land flowing with milk and honey." Every day they tarried in the land, they might pass into an inner circle of blessing. New waves of sunshine and blessing might sweep over them, so that every morning the inheritance might be to them new. Nature, in its beauties, its wonders, its products, is inexhaustible. With God as our Friend and Teacher, we may find accessions of good and gladness perpetually. Obeying his voice, we enter in; and still, as obedience grows, we enter into fuller possession increasingly.
III. AN OBEDIENT SPIRIT OBTAINS QUICKENING AND STRENGTH AT GOD'S ALTAR. It was forbidden the Hebrews to erect an altar for burnt offering anywhere except the place which God should choose for his abode. So vital, however, to the interests of the nation was this act of proclaiming the Law, that an exception was made in its favor. In the presence of the Law, men would feel their deficiencies and offences; hence provision was specially made for the confession of sin, for the presentation of sacrifice, and for the assurance of mercy. At the altar of burnt offering God and guilty man could meet; here reconciliation could be effected, and here new grace could be obtained. In the somber light of the burnt offering, men would read the august meaning of the Law, and learn to cover that Law with honor. But why must the altar be built of unhewn stones? We can only conjecture. Was it to symbolize the fact that God can allow no human interference or co-operation in the work of atonement? Was it to indicate that every part of God's will and Law must be kept perfectly intact, if man would be the friend of God? Was it to prevent any kind of graven work, the craft of human imagination, from adorning the altar of God; by which the minds of worshippers might be diverted from the one solemn act to be performed? There may be an element of truth in all these surmises.
IV. AN OBEDIENT SPIRIT FINDS UNEXPECTEDLY A BANQUET OF JOY. "Thou shalt eat, and shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God." On all sides God has provided the materials for a splendid repast, where every desire of the soul may be satisfied; but the pathway to that sumptuous feast is the pathway of hearty obedience. We can secure the annual harvest only by acting along the line of God's law in nature; and active co-operation with the Divine will is essential to our soul's satisfaction. The joy that thrills the heart of God he desires to share with us, but self-will too often robs us of the boon. "The meek shall eat and be satisfied."
V. AN OBEDIENT SPIRIT RECEIVES INSPIRATION FROM THE HIGHEST SOURCE. "Thou art the people of the Lord thy God; therefore thou shalt obey his voice." Service which is done from motives of advantage - to gain favor or promotion from God - is mercenary. A selfish end is in view. The favor of the Most High is not merely the end we seek; it is the source whence all right desire and exertion spring. Thou art the Lord's: this is the chief inspiration of effort. Thou art the Lord's; therefore live as becometh such royal rank. Thou art the Lord's; therefore all his stores of help are at thy command." "Greater is he that is for us than all who can be against us." - D.
fixed the Law on which the national policy was to rest. In other words, it was a symbolic way of declaring that Israel will be a Law-abiding people. In connection with this display of the Law, there was to be an altar erected, on which burnt offerings and peace offerings were to be presented, and the people were to realize, as they had never before done, that they have "become the people of the Lord their God." The following ideas are, among others, suggested: -
I. THE LORD'S PEOPLE WILL GREATLY HONOR HIS LAW. All disrespect shown to the Divine Law argues superficiality both in thought and in feeling. Even suppose it were not most practical and just and good, it ought to be held in high honor as proceeding from the Lord. How much more when it is so wise and so thorough in dealing with human and national life! The great business, therefore, of getting the Law written on the rocks of Mount Ebal must have impressed its sacredness upon the people, and have constituted a standing witness of their undertaking to obey it. It was the acceptance and the publication of Divine Law as that by which, as a nation, they would abide.
II. THE BURNT OFFERINGS INDICATED THEIR PERSONAL CONSECRATION TO GOD. A reference to this sacrifice will show that the idea emphasized in the burnt offering is consecration. The fire is emblematic of the sublimating influence of the Holy Spirit, by which the whole being, the entire personality, is lifted heavenward. When, then, the Israelites gathered round the altar between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, and had plentiful burnt offerings presented by their priests, it was surely dedicating their persons unto God, vowing to be a holy people unto him. Just as the burnt offering comes first in Leviticus to indicate the consecrated attitude of a people redeemed from Egyptian bondage, so it comes first on their entrance into the land of promise. It was Israel asserting that they were not their own, but "bought with a price," and therefore bound to glorify God with their bodies, and their spirits, which are God's (1 Corinthians 6:20).
III. THE PEACE OFFERINGS INDICATED FELLOWSHIP BEFORE GOD. After the burnt offerings came the peace offerings, part of which was laid on the altar, part appropriated by the priests, and the remainder the portion of the people. It was a feast of fellowship between God and his people. It was the sacrament of the land of promise. It indicated peace and unity between God and man. What a precious and interesting service it must have been! The most magnificent congregation the world ever saw, and the most impressive service! Communion is based upon unity of mind and of will on the part of the covenant-keeping God and his Law-abiding people. - R.M.E.
I. A PEOPLE BOUND TO GOD BY MANY TIES. Both by what God had done for them, and by the vows which, on different occasions, they had taken on themselves. They were his by covenant with the fathers. He had made them his by redemption from Egypt. He had covenanted with them at Sinai. The covenant being broken, he had, at Moses' intercession, graciously renewed it. He had kept covenant with the children, even when rejecting the fathers. Thirty-eight years he had led them in the wilderness, and once more had gathered them together, to hear them renew their vows of obedience. Which things are a figure. They remind us of the many bonds by which numbers of Christ's people are bound to his covenant. By redemption, by dedication of parents, by personal choice of the Savior, by public profession, by repeated visits to his table, by special vows, etc.
II. A PEOPLE REAFFIRMED TO BE GOD'S BY RENEWAL OF COVENANT. We "become" the Lord's by revival and renewal of profession, as well as by original entrance into grace. As Christ's Sonship is from eternity, yet is dated from successive epochs - his birth (Luke 1:32, 35), his resurrection (Acts 14:33; Romans 1:4) - so each new act of self-dedication, each new approach of God to the soul, each renewal of covenant, may be taken by the Christian as a new date from which to reckon his acceptance.
III. A PEOPLE UNDER WEIGHTY RESPONSIBILITIES. The believer's relation to God entails a solemn obligation to obedience. The very name, "people of God," reminds us of our "holy calling" - of the obligation resting on us to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 2:15, 16); exhibiting to the world a pattern of good works, and proving our discipleship by likeness of character to him whose Name we bear. - J.O.
Psalm 130:3; Galatians 3:10). A blessing is pronounced from Gerizim, but it is abortive, as depending on a condition which no sinner can fulfill. Hence:
1. The stones are all placed on Ebal.
2. All the sons of the bondwomen are placed on that mount (cf. Galatians 4:21-31).
This is preferable to supposing that prominence is given to the curse, inasmuch as, under law, fear rather than love is the motive relied on to secure obedience. The appeal to fear is itself an evidence that "the law is not made for a righteous man" (1 Timothy 1:9). It brings strikingly to light the inherent weakness of the economy (Romans 8:3). When a Law, the essence of which is love, requires to lean on curses to enforce it, the unlikelihood of getting it obeyed is tolerably manifest. As an actually working system, the Mosaic economy, while availing itself of the Law to awaken consciousness of sin and to keep men in the path of virtue, drew its strength for holiness, not from the Law, but from the revelations of love and grace which lay within and behind it. We learn -
I. THAT THE LAW IS COMPREHENSIVE OF EVERY PART OF OUR DUTY. A variety of sins are mentioned as examples. They relate to all departments of duty - duty to God and duty to man. The list is avowedly representative (ver. 26). Note:
1. That it covers a large part of the Decalogue. The first table is fairly represented by the second commandment, and a curse is pronounced on the making and worshipping of images (ver. 15). The precepts of the second table are involved in the other verses - the fifth commandment in the curse on filial disrespect (ver. 16), the sixth in the curse on murder (ver. 24), the seventh in the curses on the grosser forms of uncleanness (vers. 20-23); the eighth in the curse on removing the landmark (ver. 17); the ninth in the, curse on slaying another for reward, which may include perjury (ver. 25); while vers. 19:19 may be viewed as forbidding breaches of the law of love generally.
2. That the sins against which the curses are directed are mostly secret sins. The Law searches the heart.
3. That the usual care is shown for the interests of the defenseless (vers. 18, 19). It is touching, in the heart of so awful a malediction, to find this tender love for the blind, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow. Wrath and love in God are close of kin.
II. THAT A CURSE WAITS ON EVERY VIOLATION OF THE LAW'S PRECEPTS. The position of Scripture is that every sin, great and small, subjects the sinner to God's wrath and curse. It derives this truth, not, as some have sought to derive it, from the metaphysical notion of sin's infinite demerit, as committed against an infinite God; but from its own deep view of sin, as involving a change, a deflection, an alteration, in its effects of infinite moment, in the very center of man's being. There is no sin of slight turpitude. A holy being, to become capable of sin, must admit a principle into his heart totally foreign to the holy condition, and subversive of it. In this sense, he that offends in one point is guilty of all (James 2:10, 11). Sin is in him, and on a being with sin in him the Law can pronounce but one sentence. His life is polluted, and, being polluted, is forfeited. The curse involves the cutting of the sinner off from life and favor, with subjection to the temporal, spiritual, and eternal penalties of transgression. The denial of this article leaves no single important doctrine of the gospel unaffected; the admission of it carries with it all the rest. It gives its complexion to a whole theology.
III. THAT THE SINNER MUST ACKNOWLEDGE THE JUSTICE OF THE LAW'S CLAIMS AGAINST HIM. The people were required to say, "Amen." This "Amen was:
(1) An assent to the conditions of life proposed.
(2) A recognition of the righteousness of them.
The Law declares God's judgment against sin. And this:
1. Is echoed by the conscience. Fitfully, reluctantly, intermittently, yet truly, even by the natural conscience. The Amen" is implied in every pang of remorse, in every feeling of self-condemnation. Every time we do that we would not, we consent unto the Law that it is good (Romans 3:16). The very heathen know the "judgment of God, that they which commit such things" as are here specified "are worthy of death" (Romans 1:32). But it needs the spiritually convinced heart to render this "Amen hearty and sincere. The true penitent justifies God and condemns himself (Psalm 51.).
2. Was acknowledged by Christ as our Sin-bearer. In Christ's atonement, it has been truly remarked, there must have been a perfect 'Amen in humanity to the judgment of God on the sin of man. Such an 'Amen' was due to the truth of things. He who was the Truth could not be in humanity and not utter it - and it was necessarily a first step in dealing with the Father on our behalf" (J. McLeod Campbell).
I. MEN ARE RULED BY A SYSTEM OF REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS. Notwithstanding the development of the human mind, and the progress of civilization since Moses' day, human nature is still in its minority, still in a state of childhood. We do not yet see into the interior nature of spiritual realities. We do not see the inherent excellence of righteousness. We do not see the native beauty of obedience. Hence we need to be attracted by rewards and awed by punishments. We perceive the glory or the shame of moral conduct chiefly by its fruits. As we grow in piety, we shall value virtue and holiness for their own sakes, and think less about remote effects and consequences. At present we need the attendant pleasure and pain, the promises and threatenings.
II. FINAL SEPARATIONS OF MANKIND ARE HERE PREFIGURED. As the twelve tribes were here divided into two distinct groups, divided by the vale of Shechem; so all the tribes of men shall eventually be separated, and that by an impassable gulf. The principle of classification on Ebal and Gerizim was not personal merit or demerit (as it will be at the final assize), yet even this ultimate principle of separation seems to have been foreshadowed there. Only children of Jacob's married wives were placed on the mount of blessing; but Reuben, the firstborn, had forfeited this privilege by reason of his sin. As yet, the evil could be averted - the positions might be reversed; these dramatic proceedings were omens both of good and of evil, and were intended to arouse a torpid conscience. To heaven or to hell each man hourly gravitates.
III. GOD'S BLESSING OR CURSE TAKES EFFECT FROM CENTER TO CIRCUMFERENCE. These mountains were situated almost central in the land. Soon this vast congregation would be scattered to their allotted homes, and thus the influence of this scene would be transmitted all over Canaan. Even this external transmission was typical. The blessing and the curse touched every interest and relationship of Jewish life - religion, home, society, government. The curse was invoked upon idolatry, undutifulness, avarice, oppression, unchastity, insubordination. It began in the inner chamber of the heart, and extended to the outermost circle of the social system. It begins at once, follows the crime as the shadow does the object, until it reaches into the most distant cycles of eternity.
IV. THE HUMAN CONSCIENCE IS THE RECIPROCAL OF THE MORAL LAW, THE ECHO OF ITS SANCTIONS AND ITS PENALTIES. Every healthy conscience utters its sincere "Amen" to every dictate of God's Law. When free from the mists and storms of guilty passion, it reflects, with the fidelity of a mirror, the decisions of God's royal will. Even when a man is the victim of judicial sentence, his conscience admits the justice of the doom. The culprit, in his calmer moods, is self-convicted and self-condemned. When God, by the lips of Moses, required all the tribes to affirm thus solemnly the curses due to disobedience, he knew that every man would heartily take his part in that august deed.
V. MEN BECOME THE ADMINISTRATORS OF GOD'S LAW. We cannot doubt that one reason why God required this public assent to the sanctions of his Law, was that each man might feel more deeply his responsibility toward himself and toward his neigh-bouts. In proportion to our reverential regard for God becomes our concern for others' obedience. The Levites more than once had girded on their swords, and, fired with zeal for their God, had slain their own countrymen. No resistance was attempted, for conscience had made cowards of the culprits. To the same end, David prays, "Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness." Moved by this impulse, men would seek "to please their neighbors for their good unto edification." Possessed with a pious disposition, they endeavor to make known on every side God's will, to preserve its remembrance among those disposed to grow oblivious, and to exalt its authority on every hand. Self-consistency required that those who had publicly pronounced the curses of the Law should jealously watch their own conduct - should tenderly caution others! - D.
I. THE TRIBE OF LEVI, WITH ALL THE APPOINTMENTS FOR SACRIFICE, PASSED TO GERIZIM TO BLESS. In the march Levi was divided into two parts - the Gershonites and Merarites going fourth with the tabernacle furniture, while the Kohathites went eighth with the ark and sanctuary. But they unite at Mount Gerizim. Nothing could more clearly indicate the mercy and blessing embodied in the whole ceremonial law which the Levites represented. The Law in its judicial aspect might have its penalties and judgments, but it had its ceremonies of mercy to counterbalance these.
II. THE WEIGHT OF THE NATION STOOD ON MOUNT GERIZIM. When we consider the tribes that defiled upon the mount of blessing, we see that they absorb the heroic in Israel. Reuben, Gad, Asher, Dan, Zebulun, and Naphtali were nobodies, so far as national heroism is concerned; whereas the other tribes became famous in the history of Palestine. It is surely significant that the weight of the nation is assigned to the mount of blessing.
III. THE PEOPLE HAD TO SAY "AMEN" TO THE CURSES AS WELL AS TO THE BLESSINGS PRONOUNCED IN THE NAME OF GOD. Some are ready with their responses to the blessings; they cannot get too much of them. But they demur to any curses issuing from God. They think they are unworthy of him. It so happens, however, that, in the great congregation between the mountains, the curses of Ebal had precedence of the blessings of Gerizim. The emphasis chronologically was given to the curses. And our consciences must acknowledge that the Law of God must carry out its penalties punctually, or it will forfeit all respect.
IV. A REVIEW OF THE CURSES HERE UTTERED SHOWS THAT THEY ALL REST UPON RIGHT. No one dare take up one of these curses and suggest its omission or alteration. It is absolute morality which assigns a malediction to such crimes as these. They have the hearty "Amen of every unbiased conscience. - R.M.E.